Several hundred thousand Egyptians thronged Cairo’s now iconic Tahrir Square on Friday to celebrate the fall of Hosni Mubarak and to pressure their new military rulers for democratic reform.
The state news agency estimated the crowd’s number at two million, but it was impossible to calculate the true size of the festival-like mass of people that spilled out of the plaza and across downtown Cairo.
Even as night fell, sight-seers and families descended on the area and the nearby square of Talaat Harb, swaying to Arabic music, cheering and sending hundreds of hand-launched firework rockets screaming into the air.
Earlier, as the crowd turned the square into a vast open-air mosque and conducted Friday prayers, the demonstration had a more serious air.
Influential Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi addressed the multitude, calling on Arab leaders facing protests across the region to listen to their people, to cheers from a crowd with a large contingent of Islamist activists.
“The world has changed, the world has progressed, and the Arab world has changed within,” said Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born cleric based in Qatar.
“Don’t obstruct the people. Don’t try to lead them on with empty talk. Conduct a real dialogue with them.”
Security was light
Protesters performed their prayers in massed ranks. Tanks surrounded the square, but security was light, with civilian volunteers checking IDs and performing perfunctory pat downs.
Before the crowds swelled for the prayer, a military band in full dress uniform was playing patriotic music to the cheers of the adoring crowd, and soldiers handed out national flags to children.
While the mood was cheerful, the sheer size of the crowd sent a powerful message to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power when Mubarak stepped down on February 11.
The military has promised to reform the constitution and help stage free elections to ensure the return of civilian rule — but Egyptians are wary.
“The Egyptian people will stay here in Tahrir Square every Friday if the government does not respond to Egypt’s demands,” declared 29-year-old Mohammed Hamdi as night fell on the packed streets.
“Today we’re celebrating,” said 26-year-old Rehan Mahfouz. “If they don’t respond we will gather every Friday.”
A coalition of youth and opposition groups has vowed to keep up the pressure to ensure the rest of its political demands are met, including the “immediate release of all detainees”, it said in statement posted on Facebook.
Hundreds of people went missing during the protests, rights groups say, blaming the army, which they have also accused of torture.
Gamal Eid, a lawyer who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said: “There are hundreds of detained, but information on their numbers is still not complete … The army was holding detainees.”
The coalition of activists is also calling for “a speedy replacement of the current caretaker cabinet by a government of technocrats.”
Pro-democracy activists are also seeking a lifting of the decades-old emergency law and support for the pay strikes that have surged around the country.
“We are going today to commemorate the martyrs and in doing so we are awaiting justice,” Mohammed Waked, a protest organiser, told AFP.
“If those detained during the protests are not released, let alone the older political prisoners, it would be a bad sign. It would show the army is not sincere about political reforms.”
In Tahrir Square, taxi driver Farag Radwan, who took the day off to celebrate, said he was following other revolts in the Arab world on television.
“Why can’t we be united like Europe?” he said. “The problem is with the presidents not the people.”
Activists, who are also calling for a complete dismantling of Mubarak’s regime, welcomed the arrest of reviled former interior minister Habib al-Adly, whose security forces were given wide powers of arrest under the emergency law.
Adly was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of money laundering and ordered held for 15 days.
And prosecutors ordered former tourism minister Zuheir Garana, former housing minister Ahmed al-Maghrabi and businessman Ahmad Ezz also to be held for 15 days “to assist in an investigation”, a judicial source said.
Ezz, a steel magnate, was a member of the former ruling National Democratic Party. He was considered to be a mentor of Mubarak’s son Gamal, who was long considered a possible successor to his father.
On Thursday, the United States gave Egypt, a key ally in the region, $150-million in crucial economic assistance to help transition towards democracy. — Sapa-AFP